Since the publication of Inquest, his 1966 critique of the Warren Commission’s report on the Kennedy assassination, Edward Jay Epstein has been probing events he believes were not sufficiently illuminated by the official investigations. He’s been particularly keen on examining the failures of America’s intelligence agencies, both at home and abroad. In How America Lost Its Secrets, he focuses on Edward Snowden’s massive looting and exposure of National Security Agency secrets. And, in Epstein’s mind, it does amount to looting, even though he agrees that Snowden performed a valuable service in alerting Americans to how broadly the NSA is spying on them. “Opening a Pandora’s box of government secrets is a dangerous undertaking,” he asserts.
A dogged researcher, Epstein retraces Snowden’s trajectory each step of the way from geeky teenager to opportunistic intelligence employee to celebrity whistleblower. However, Epstein doesn’t accept the widely held belief that Snowden is simply a whistleblower whose sole aim is to reveal the sinister side of America’s domestic intelligence gathering. He maintains that most of the documents Snowden copied and made public (or has threatened to make public) had to do with America’s spying on such potential adversaries as Russia and China. Further, he doesn’t believe Snowden acted alone in scooping up thousands of documents. He surmises—with some very persuasive reasoning—that Snowden must have had inside help and outside direction in deciding which intelligence files to raid. Epstein also goes to considerable lengths to explain why the government’s reliance on private, for-profit contractors to assist in its security work—such as the one that hired but failed to check out Snowden—is a built-in Achilles heel.
In spite of the kaleidoscopic array of dates, places and characters Epstein has to deal with, his narrative is immensely readable and carries with it the dark sense of inevitability that flavors all good spy stories.